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Leo Komarov settling in on Islanders' top line with Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle

Leo Komarov of the Islanders skates against Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins during the third period at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Coach Barry Trotz has put him there in the absence of Anders Lee and Komarov has brought his gritty game into play. 

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There’s little that’s complicated or fancy about the way Leo Komarov plays hockey. He uses his body and his mouth to annoy opponents and he tries to get to the net. Lately, his grinding style has been meshed with the more skilled Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle on the Islanders’ top line with injured captain Anders Lee is out for the season.

The Islanders, coming off back-to-back losses in Pittsburgh, opened a season-high, six-game homestand on Thursday night the East Division-leading Capitals at Nassau Coliseum.

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"It’s been nice playing with those guys," Komarov said before the game. "I’m just trying to keep it simple, give the puck to those guys. Stay in front of the net. The last couple games we want to win the games, it didn’t really go our way."

Predictably, Komarov also took a no-nonsense approach to the challenge of facing the Capitals five times in 27 days in April. The Capitals won the first three games against the Islanders, all in Washington.

"We need to find our game, play our game," Komarov said. "The Caps are a good team. It’s not easy. We’re ready for it and it’s going to be fun."

Entering Thursday, the Islanders had won five of nine games since Lee tore his right anterior cruciate ligament.

Komarov, who had three assists in his first 19 games this season, had one assist in five games playing with Barzal and Eberle.

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Barzal had a goal and four assists in Lee’s absence while Eberle had two goals and three assists. Both had goals in Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Penguins and Barzal set up Matt Martin’s power-play goal in Monday’s 2-1 loss to the Penguins that concluded a 2-2-0 road trip.

But that line is counted upon to be more productive than that at even strength.

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"From a line perspective, we’ve definitely had some looks," Eberle said. "I feel like I’ve hit six or seven crossbars and posts the last five or six games. The biggest thing is just trying to get on the same page. Leo is a player who’s trying to get to the front of the net. He’s trying to take over that Anders Lee role.

"With most lines that I’ve ever played with, the more you play with a guy the better you get," Eberle added. "We’re still trying to find that chemistry. I think the last couple of games we’ve done a better job of it. The next step would be instead of creating chances, you want the puck to go in the net. That just gives you confidence as a line."

So, too, would sustained success against the Capitals.

The Islanders entered Thursday tied with the Penguins two points behind the Capitals in the tight East race. The Capitals had played one fewer game than either.

The three losses in Washington each had a different theme. Defenseman Justin Schultz scored with 26.4 seconds remaining in regulation as the Capitals won 3-2 on Jan. 26. Two days later, the Islanders couldn’t hold a three-goal, first-period lead in a 6-3 loss. The Capitals scored two power-play goals in a 3-1 win on March 16.

So, the Islanders easily understood how important this stretch of games against the Capitals will be in their playoff push.

"It really starts [Thursday] for us," Josh Bailey said. "We know there’s games to come against them as the month goes on. But we really just focus one at a time. They’ve kind of had our number thus far. It goes that way sometimes. We’ve still got opportunities here to get the wins that we’re looking for."